Donmar Warehouse—THE THREEPENNY OPERA (1994)

mi0002173465Review by Graham Warnken

Assigned by Dina Levina

I knew Brecht by name before this, but had never got around to reading any of his plays. Based on this I need to, though. This album is hitting aaaaaalll my musical theatre buttons, and I’m kicking myself for being so late with the review that I have to keep it short.

Snappy, Gothic orchestration? Check. Revisionist satire on capitalism in Ye Olde Europe? Check. The word “shit” appearing a lot? Check. There’s this aura of muck and dirt that hangs around the whole thing, and it’s just so much fun. This particular English translation is pretty obviously period-inaccurate, but for this sort of thing it’s more important that the spirit is gotten across, which the numerous swear words and sex jokes do admirably.

I can’t speak to the wider story/satire, as I have yet to read the libretto, but I’ll be remedying that posthaste. Probably seeking out other cast recordings, too—I love the vernacular/vulgar approach this one takes but am interested in finding older versions as well. Especially as this kind of modernizing approach to translation drives me insane when it’s employed for books. 😛

Shopping Trolley—SHOPPING TROLLEY (1989)

shopping-trolley-self-titledReview by Filip Mašić

Assigned by Benjamin Lefebvre

The visual aesthetic’s a bit.. conformist, innit? A goofy pop-rock album, no-one was surprised to learn. But those can be valuable in all sorts of different ways. So let’s dig in. Released in 1989, it’s quite retro in style, but more than that, it essentially *is* a sequence of tropes welded together mercilessly and unapologetically. Confidently. It could easily have been blandly derivative and amounted to nothing, but the flair with which it’s done makes it something more.

The tropes, tho… there’s a crapload of them. Unapologetic! Every song clearly aspires to a tradition, mostly in the pop canon. Upbeat hectic anthem, Carole King-ish piano ballad, quirky blues-rocker, ambient dirge, then… I mean, idk how to describe “Renaissance Man”, but I damn well feel like I’ve heard the whole thing before. So much déjà-vu. Country ballad. 80s smooth pop. And zooming in… you def know the sus4 thing in “Moose” (e.g. at the very end) from like every piano ballad ever. “Hyde Park Corner” has that lick at 0:20, Hendrix chords, vocal/instrument call-and-response, boogie-woogie walking bass. The all-together-now ending on “Renaissance Man”… its jaunty clarinet, vocal growls, mystery dramatic false chord (bonnnngggg!). Lots of cues from the Beatles around ’67, ’68, like the endings of “Hyde Park” and “Graham”. “Whistle Song” ends just like Jethro Tull. Tons of stuff that’s hard to verbalise but you just *know* – the whole album has that reconstituted feel, of awaiting the next throwback.

So, the album fundamentally doesn’t assert a strong original identity. That’s not what it’s about. In some limited senses, it does. The biggest is Melanie Pappenheim, the female vocal. Best known for the Bad Wolf theme from Doctor Who? Seriously beautiful singing, *all* over the album, with a glassy pristine texture that suits the quirky lyrics. They are kinda stereotypically quirky, but Melanie’s prim, clean vocal cooing “or will I play staccato… which might cause instant death?” on “Moose” is the charm of the album. Those melodies about “contemplating crayons” and “hearing table-tennis” save the otherwise stolid, empty song.

Another sense is the off-the-cuff musical-theatre feel running throughout the album… a bit unconventional. But these aren’t the point – what makes the album *work* is that all the tropes are woven together really skilfully. Exploring the songs is a joy. Take the musical-theatre aspect, enacted most vividly by “Graham, Return!”. The song stitches together so many disparate segments, some overtly *theatrical* and story-telling, others with a strong *musical* identity, namely this kind of honky-tonk rhythm and mixolydian scale (whose major-with-a-bluesy-twist feel is used well throughout the album, to make it upbeat yet weird). Take my notes from the song’s breakdown:

“bang bang bang bang trombone

theatrical revving

regal british brass tune

chill mixo honky reprise

big-band brass optimistic chorus

eerie electronic melody”

It’s colourful, wonderful, has comedy brass (shoutout to the random trumpet note introducing each chorus, ha). Great! If that’s too choppy and theatrical, other songs show serious subtleties that elevate the album beyond the pastiche I first insinuated it might be. The keyboard (I guess from sole album composer/lyricist Johnny Miller) and Melanie’s vocals run through the verses of “Whistle Song” in total unbroken unison, with breakneck acrobatics from Melanie (+ hilarious lyrics about looking slim to please him..), then flows into creative comping under the whistle solo (of course there’s a whistle solo), fleshing out some identity. Not to mention the dynamic breaks that bookend the solos and imbue a rollicking feel. Which reappears on <s-e-g-u-e> “Hyde Park Corner”, where the sense of tropes being strung together is matched by a sense of cool melodies, harmonies, vibes being strung together. It’s the little things like the emphatic increases in pitch within the staccato string-section bursts punctuating the Lovely Rita–esque coda of that song. I was at this famous corner the other day. It’s a confusing hellish trap well-deserving of those shrill bursts of anxiety.

Check the accidentals and modulations where you least expect them – 1:20 into “Len Smoothchurch”, or the end of each phrase in “Roundabout”. It’s all about subversion; you expect a different chord at 1:20 and so get taken on a journey. Same goes for all the detailed arrangements – the music actively resists repetition, throwing twists and subverting, which is a boon I see throughout all the music I like. So props to them for that. That 1:20 moment actually prompted me to dig into the harmony a bit… I decided that bit is Em7 → E♭M9. There’s depth and colour to most arrangements, jazzy subtleties tying together the material unobtrusively, accentuating the simple yet diverse pop harmonies that define the album. This does make it feel uninteresting on first listens, but it rewards digging a bit deeper. Even on a yucky saccharine 80s song like “Smoothchurch”! Which is lyrically some sort of character assassination or…

I rate the texture, too. An acoustic feel complemented by all sorts of strings, brass, woodwinds, organ-things, ethereal electric pianos. Some distinctive, creatively-applied textures from the clarinet and baritone sax, not to mention the strong backing vocal arrangements everywhere. The production is clear but sadly reflects the compartmentalised feel of classic pop-rock, lacking the intricate dynamics, drive, expansiveness of more modern orchestration-heavy rock, like Arcade Fire’s Funeral.

The best song by far is the ambient dirge, “Bring Back The Mary Hopkin Days”. That’s a, err *checks Wikipedia* 60s folk singer signed to Apple. Well. The throwback continues. But this song is *the* one that feels like it breaks free from the pervasive homage vibe, more like a serious work in its chosen style, which is still pretty familiar. I left it till this point in the review because it’s a peak in so many of the things that I’ve said make the album great. Melanie’s lead vocal is extraordinary. It goes full operatic soprano, going into awesome slides, playing the changes brilliantly, changes that are as pretty and subversive as ever. The counterpoint she sings in the second verse, over a male vocal reprising the melody of the first, is clever, exploratory, and just fits, with the clashing lyrics adding great rhythms to boot. The song structure is staunchly anti-repetitive – stately Dorian ambient chords, a weeping slide guitar, all brought to life by the electric organ, with details I love like grim power-chord cadences (0:27) and chords that get coloured in halfway through (2:42).

And the bit at 3:05 is *something else*. As a modern abstract jazz–head, these 30s are my album highlight. After the slide-guitar bit resolves into a hopeful major chord, the key jumps up a semitone and goes into an ethereal Velvet Underground–like texture, with fuzzier organ and double-time as a mellower Melanie comes in over some Sunday Morning–like bells, wordlessly meandering over a Lydian scale (an even-brighter version of the major scale), sometimes dramatically plunging into the parallel minor, controlled so it doesn’t disturb the dream. This exploration and intertwining of brightness and darkness is kinda breathtaking and a rare creative step that boldly escapes all the retro. The closer “Roundabout” goes for a similar vibe, with a sick intro that sees a bass note gradually descend for 2 minutes as the harmony is fleshed out among bell-like notes and morse code–ish rhythms, and has a lovely whispery male/female vocal duet, alternating with Melanie’s leading operatic runs.

This album celebrates music. It rifles through the history of pop-rock, a vibrant guided tour held together by clever arrangements and an undercurrent of subtleties that reward a closer look. It’s just that this doesn’t make for an album that stays with you long after the initial celebration. Musical identity is forged by innovation, by individual out-there ideas that can be passed down by word-of-mouth and quoted. There are some here, demonstrably, but not enough to be timeless.

Berry Sakharof—SIMANIM SHEL CHULSHA (1994)

268x0wReview by Dinar Khayrutdinov

Assigned by Nitay Shifroni

Well, this guy has to be the Israeli Nick Cave… or the Israeli Lou Reed… or someone similar in any case. I’ll get one thing out of the way – as much as I love Nick and Lou, I didn’t really enjoy Berry Sakharof much. Don’t get me wrong: this record sounds cool in a bleak mope-rocky kind of way, and the mood this album is aiming for is obviously emulated pretty well but overall I’m afraid I found it mostly generic-sounding, apart from a few interesting ideas here and there. The only track that really impressed me from start to finish was Im Hayiti, which, in my opinion, was the only instance on this album when Sakharof sounds fresh and original: the gloomy bass-guitar interplay here, the inventive production and the almost three dimensional, reverby, rich sound design reminds me of… Swans, of all bands (so yeah, the originality is still relative). Attempts are made later in the album to replicate this sort of apocalyptic, brutally grim and darkly beautiful soundscape, but these are often mixed with the singer churning out the lyrics in a singer-songwriterish way, which diluted the whole experience for me. Granted, I do not understand Hebrew, so maybe the lyrics are really great? Judging by the cover art, it might be some sort of a political message but how the heck should I know.

Anyway, to sum things up, this album uses gloomy production, bleak guitar tones and the singer’s world-weary voice to create a certain mood, but in ways that have been used in popular music much too often. I guess it’s not a bad album overall (lyrically it might even be a masterpiece for all I know) but I don’t really see myself ever returning to this because it’s just not that interesting musically for me.

The Negro Problem—POST MINSTREL SYNDROME (1997)

416ayp3hbclReview by Tim Simard

Assigned by Adrian Evans-Burke

What’s in a name? Those were among my first thoughts about The Negro Problem, an L.A.-based mid-1990s band. Right off the bat, I knew that front man Mark Stewart (better known as Stew to his friends and the world) wanted to grab attention. The Negro Problem gets you noticed, whether one sees the name on the marquee of a club or because the club won’t allow the band’s name in lights for fear that someone might be offended. Either way, they’re talking about you.

Popping in their debut album, “Post Minstrel Syndrome” from 1997, I half expected to hear songs of social justice with calls-to-action, or preachy rock sermons written to make me Aware. The Negro Problem—fronted by an African American guitarist/singer (Stew) backed by three white musicians (Jill Meschke Blair, keyboards; Gwynne Kahn, bass; Charles Pagano, drums)—is as diverse as any rock band you’ll find. They’re hardly the first (Love, the Chamber Brothers, and Booker T. and the MGs spring directly to mind), but the band’s racial and gender make-up suited them perfectly to Make A Statement.

And they certainly do, but not in the expected way. Straying away from the obvious topical song approach, the Negro Problem instead embraces clever, irreverent, sometimes subtle, and oftentimes amusing lyrics to take the listener through Stew’s societal views via a sound reminiscent of mid-1960s southern California. This album pretty much screams L.A. The production reminds you of the Wall of Sound, the jingle-jangle Byrds, the unique ear of Brian Wilson, and so on. All with a sound reminiscent of every 1990s pop band you can think of. From the first notes of “Birdcage,” the album’s opener, “Post Minstrel Syndrome” wants you to feel nostalgia while grooving to the guitar and voice of Stew.

With the band’s sound firmly in place, Stew makes his statement about race in 1990s America with songs like “The Meaning of Everything,” “Ghetto Godot,” and “2 Inch Dick Mobile.” The lyrics are snarky and damn funny at times, even if the songs don’t quite reach their sonic potential (the excellent “The Meaning of Everything” bucks that trend).

“Post Minstrel Syndrome” isn’t all cultural impudence. Some songs breeze along just fine, such as “If You Would Have Traveled on the 93 North Today” and “Omegaville” Others are as instantly forgettable as most mid-90s pop, and you can’t help but notice that Stew sounds really similar to John Popper at times (“Buzzing” and “Great Leap Forward”). Others make you revisit them almost immediately, like time-changing “Miss Jones,” where I can hear a “Good Vibrations” inspiration at work.

Of course, I haven’t mentioned the song this album is best known for—the cover of the Jimmy Webb-penned, Richard Harris hit “MacArthur Park.” And it’s a lot of fun, with the gritty organ opening and Stew’s hilarious lyrical change (“Someone left the crack out in the rain…”). The band takes this overblown song and gets you to dance to it. Something I bet would have amused old Richard.

The album ends on a loud and jammy note with “Witch,” a song that reminds one of the Doors noodling around on the beginning of “The End,” but quickly changes approach and ends the album with some serious rock. It’s the perfect ending to a surprisingly good album, except that there’s more. A four-song coda that sounds like a mix of demos and bonus tracks officially ends the CD. Not essential, but it doesn’t take anything away from “Post Minstrel Syndrome” as a whole.

So what happened to this band? Well, it appears the original formation split almost immediately following this album’s release. Stew kept the name going for two more albums, then broke off on his own with some success. Apparently he’s most famous for penning a popular SpongeBob song. Go figure!

The Negro Problem certainly didn’t hit the heights they thought they might achieve. In the end, they are also-rans in the pantheon of 1990s music. The band’s sound and lyrics certainly betray their lack of success, but maybe the band’s name was, for lack of a better description, problematic? Whatever the case, this is an obscure gem well worth checking out.


STRAIT TO THE POINT: Lady Gaga—Joanne (2016)


Bleh. What a waste.

(No, I’m not reviewing Cheek to Cheek. Sod off.)

If this album proves one thing, it’s that I was wrong to suspect that Gaga’s reservoir of raw melodic talent had emptied entirely. Naw, she’s still got it, and it’s actually present on this album in abundance. I dunno where it went on Artpop, but it’s back now, and most of the songs on this album centre around at least one pretty memorable tune. So, that’s a good thing, right? All is not lost?

Mmmm… nah. Gaga’s talent for writing catchy melodies is most certainly back, but it’s been misapplied. All those dense, clever tunes she used to write, with their lovely development and evolving structure, are gone, and what we’ve got here instead is a big ol’ pile of vast, soaring arena music. Just about every hook on here is huge, slow, ponderous and spacey, and it’s all delivered with so much uncontrolled vocal power that it often starts to become a little grating after a while. Take the opener, for example: a perfectly competent, entirely decent piece of soft faux-indie arena pop-rock sung as if it were some sort of U2 ballad about Martin Luther King, developing as predictably as anything you can imagine from its plaintive verses to its big ol’ drawn-out-syllables hook. It’s perfectly enjoyable if you’re in the mood, but it’s rather tragically typical, sounding like just the sort of dime-a-dozen landfill indie that’s been filling middle class nerdy-white-girl playlists since the turn of the decade. I kinda like the sheer melodrama of the bridge, I guess, but I could see it coming from a mile away. I like Gaga best when she keeps me guessing, and there ain’t a single moment of that on this album.

If anything, the most baffling thing about this album is the general consensus among the uninformed that it can be considered “country”, presumably something to do with all the acoustic guitars and that big pink hat on the cover. There’s nothing country about it at all, of course, with the possible exception of “Sinner’s Prayer”, which at least has some vague ghost of the twangy warmth one can usually find in the best country. The fingerpicked guitar style is still more folk, though, and the actual songwriting is mostly just the same as the rest of the acoustic tracks on this album: ballad-pop, genreless and formless except in the most general possible sense, the sort of music recorded just as easily by Adele or Keane as by Lady Antebellum. It’s a little better than most of that dreck, ‘cos Gaga is still a better melodist than most, but the melodies just aren’t interesting anymore, you know? Like, nobody could deny that “Million Reasons” is extremely catchy, but it’s just so much dumber than her catchy songs used to be. The hook is vast, soaring, huge, sweeping, etc. etc., and impossible to forget the moment you first hear it – but it’s not clever. It’s the sound of a supremely talented melodist operating on autopilot, defaulting to the path of least resistence and creating the only song in her entire career I’d be willing to call completely generic.

The sentiments get pretty generic, too. Gaga’s never been a good lyricist, but the first verse on “Come to Mama” may be the most offensive thing she’s ever written, dipping far below her usual levels and dragging us to the dread realms of white savior-pop. “Everybody’s got to love each other/ Stop throwin’ stones at your sisters and your brothers/ Man, it wasn’t that long ago we were all living in the jungle/ So why do we gotta put each other down/ When there’s more than enough love to g-g-go around?”, she simpers, doing her best to ruin what little goodwill may be conferred by the perfunctory funk brass-band arrangements one finds elsewhere in the song. “Hey Girl” is a duet with eternal wailer Florence, fresh from The Machine, and it’s a meeting of two such unstoppable freight-train voices that it’s actually almost likeable until you hit the dimestore feminism lyrics. “Angel Down”, meanwhile, closes the album out on perhaps the most trite note possible, with Gaga donning her – gulp – political hat, letting loose with a string of such rancid clichés that I nearly vomit every time I hear it. “I’m a believer, it’s chaos/ Where are our leaders? Oh, oh, oh!” she sings pathetically, doing her very best Whitney Houston impression in the worst possible way. All these songs have incredibly, ridiculously catchy arena-pop hooks that I can easily imagine anybody singing along to at a live show, but they’re all basically the same as each other and none of them have an ounce of intelligence anywhere in their bodies. The only little acoustic ballad on the whole album I properly like is the title track, which drops all the lyrical pretense in favour of a simple lament for one of Gaga’s long-dead relations and does nothing to ruin the fairly pleasant melody and fingerpicking that accompany it. It’s quite lovely, but it’s not exactly one of her best tracks, and she’s hardly the best to ever do this kind of music. Still, at least she’s better at it than Mumford & Sons, eh?

The other songs on this record – and we’ve blown through more than half of them already – have various ideas that set them apart from this grey mess, but not all of them are good ones. “Dancin’ in Circles” is, once again, catchy as anything, but it’s also very much a superficial imitation of the absolute most basic possible surface traits of reggae or ska music, lacking any sort of groove or funk to match its lyrics (“Tap down those boots while I beat around/Let’s funk downtown”). “Perfect Illusion” is this weird, ridiculously oversung glam rock pastiche, saddled with the absolute dumbest verse melody on the album (which is seriously saying a lot) and laden with a totally, hilariously unearned key change that brings to mind the worst excesses of Eurovision idiot-pop. I can, in the right frame of mind, just about enjoy most of the tracks on this album on some base level, but “Perfect Illusion” really is total shit, and I can’t recall a single moment where I ever enjoyed any of it. Gaga’s made a lot of bad songs, but this seriously might be her worst. And it was the lead single! See what I mean about bad ideas?

The remaining two songs are the only ones that come close to displaying the level of talent I know Gaga is capable of, and it’s really only a dim reflection. “A-YO” is classified as “country-pop” by the idiots over on Wikipedia, but it’s really more of an indie pop song with perhaps vague, ill-defined influences from a nebulously distant era of American popular music, sounding not really much like country, rock ‘n’ roll or r’n’b but kind of like someone heard all those styles described to them by a millennial who’d read about them on George Starostin’s old page and decided to make a song based on that information. It’s dancey, catchy and fun, even if Gaga’s oversinging gets grating, and I can’t deny that the end result of this pastiche is something kinda unique among the pop radio hits of the day. “John Wayne”, meanwhile, is the closest thing you’ll find to Gaga’s old bop style on the album, and it might be one of the better tracks on Artpop if you just replaced all the live instruments with expensive synths. The rock influence is vague enough to, once again, accidentally create something a little unique, not quite rock enough to be called pop-rock but with enough ghosts of rock attitude to make the whole thing sound a little more hard-edged than usual. It’s still not perfect – the hook feels a little lazy, what with those little wordless, distorted vocals taking the place of Gaga’s usual well-developed melodies – but it’s at least kind of a successful banger with a nice build in the prechorus, which is a trick one might almost have thought Gaga had forgotten entirely if one judged by the other tracks on the album.

And, uh… that’s it. Man, what a disappointment, huh? I can’t rate this too low, ‘cos every song on here really is very catchy, but this is an album that feels very much as if Gaga is suppressing herself in pursuit of some great social ideal she has no business pursuing. The idea that acoustic ballads are the definition of authenticity is, of course, a silly one, and I’d actually say this feels like possibly the least authentic Gaga record yet, save maybe for the lowest nadirs on The Fame. Trying to slot any of these tracks onto best-of-Gaga playlists is a bizarrely futile endeavor, not just because the instrumentation is so different from her usual but because the melodic style seems almost like that of another artist, moonlighting under the Gaga name but not really representing her soul. The cover, at least, is great – probably the best Gaga album cover ever, actually, at least so far – but, alas, that’s the only hyperbole I can heap upon this album, which isn’t even interesting enough to claim the coveted title of worst Gaga album. Man, is there anything more depressing than the sight of an interesting artist making an uninteresting album? Well, I dunno, maybe